Vodafone was last week fined £4.6million by communications regulator Ofcom for catastrophically failing customers.
The record fine is vindication of a one-year investigation by The Mail on Sunday into woeful customer service at the mobile phone giant.
But complaints CONTINUE to surface.
Fiasco: Vodafone’s customer service fiasco has been worthy of a Laurel and Hardy style blunder
Over the past 12 months, hundreds of Vodafone customers have contacted us complaining about the company’s incompetence.
Many of these cases were passed on to Ofcom as it investigated the company, culminating in the multi-million pound fine.
In issuing its fine, Ofcom said that between January 2014 and November 2015, Vodafone ‘provided its frontline customer service staff with insufficient and ambiguous information’ on when to treat a customer call as a complaint.
Here, we speak to some of the customers who were let down badly by a mobile provider which repeatedly refused to listen.
We also explain how to put an end to the horror of a simple mobile contract wreaking havoc with your personal life and personal finances.
When Philip Bailey’s granddaughter lost her mobile phone he asked Vodafone to disconnect it. But the company cut off his mobile instead.
The consequence of this error, besides the considerable time it took to return his phone to working order, was that he faced the worry of being uncontactable by hospital nurses as his wife, Melanie, underwent surgery. She has terminal cancer.
The couple could not afford for him to take time off work, but he wanted to ensure he was only a phone call away should anything go wrong and he needed to rush to her bedside. It was literally a lifeline.
SIX STEPS TO RESOLVING YOUR COMPLAINT
Six steps to resolving your complaint
Whatever company you are at war with, it is important to know what rights you have when a complaint is not taken seriously.
Here are The Mail on Sunday’s top tips:
1. COMPLAIN first to the company. Do this via email or in a dated letter. Be matter-of-fact about what has gone wrong and clearly state how it should be put right.
2. KEEP a record of all complaints and correspondence, as well as any evidence that backs up your case, such as photographs, bills and account statements.
3. REFER your case to an independent mediator if the company does not reply within eight weeks or says it can do no more to help you.
There is an Ombudsman for most industry sectors – including financial, property, energy, communications and general consumer issues.
For mobile phone gripes, turn either to the Communications Ombudsman (0330 4401614; ombudsman-services.org/communications) or the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (020 75203827; cedr.com/cisas).
4. FIND guidance about using an Ombudsman and making complaints on the Citizens Advice website (citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer) or call its helpline on 03454 040506.
5. TAKE legal action in the small claims court if an Ombudsman cannot resolve the problem and you need to take matters further. Details on how to do this can be found at gov.uk/make-court-claim-for-money.
6. FLAG any inaccuracies or disputes about your payment history on your credit report by adding your own ‘notice of correction’.
Banks judge whether to lend based on what is recorded on your credit file. Visit Experian.co.uk, Equifax.co.uk and Callcredit.co.uk – these are the three credit reference agencies holding the information.
All he wanted from his mobile network was acknowledgement of its error and an apology. ‘They weren’t bothered,’ says Philip.
This is one of the more heartbreaking stories The Mail on Sunday has heard from Vodafone customers and one of the reasons why we forwarded complaints to Ofcom.
Others have told us about the horror of being chased for debts they did not owe.
Their credit records were tarnished, resulting in them missing out on mortgages, loans and the chance to buy their first or next home.
They wasted countless hours speaking to people in contact centres around the world who repeatedly failed to help them.
We heard from a new mum who was harassed by an overly friendly overseas call centre worker. After her husband complained to Vodafone, the employee accused the young mum of behaving like ‘Queen Elizabeth’.
Customers have shed tears, some have raged while others have suffered stress and anxiety.
All who contacted us had one thing in common – their voices went unheard by Vodafone.
They were stuck on a complaints merry-go-round, forced to repeat grievances because employees were unable to resolve errors.
Customers were told that complaints would be ‘escalated’ and rectified. But often they found themselves back at square one.
HOW THE PHONE GIANTS COMPARE
Complaints about mobile phone operators to Ofcom are published every quarter.
While Vodafone has been the most complained about mobile network since the fourth quarter of 2014 – peaking at the end of 2015 – Tesco Mobile has performed consistently well by comparison as the least complained about provider every quarter since the latter half of 2014.
In the latest update, Vodafone racked up 23 complaints per 100,000 accounts, compared to Tesco Mobile’s one per 100,000.
Providers O2 and Three were next best in the table with two and three complaints respectively.
To see complaints figures covering companies which offer mobile, broadband, pay TV and landline deals visit ofcom.org.uk. For tips on how to switch providers visit citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer.
The company also failed to direct unhappy customers to an independent mediator, such as the Communications Ombudsman, which could have intervened on their behalf.
At least one of our readers was told there was no way for him to raise a complaint at all. David Short begged to make an official complaint while chatting to customer agents via Vodafone’s instant web chat.
He was told there was no email address and to complain further he would need to call Vodafone or visit a nearby store. There was no mention of an Ombudsman. This breaches rules laid down by Ofcom.
A LONG LIST OF PROBLEMS
New mobile numbers were randomly added to accounts, while others were wrongly deleted and cut off.
Pay-as-you-go credit top-ups were not added, causing more than 10,000 customers to lose £150,000 over the course of 17 months.
Bills were sent out for contracts that customers say they had cancelled within the agreed cooling-off period.
Demands for unpaid bills were made even when a customer was up to date with payments.
Problem after problem: New mobile numbers were randomly added to accounts, while others were wrongly deleted and cut off
Vodafone recorded them as late payers on credit records, referred to by lenders when customers apply for deals. These false marks on records meant customers were rejected for loans and mortgages.
Lee Jenkinson, 25, is a waiter living in Newcastle. He has been working all hours so he can build a deposit for a first home.
When he started saving he had no credit rating so built it up by using a credit card and repaying the balance on time.
But this year Vodafone told him he owed money – despite leaving the network two years ago and cancelling his account.
‘Bullied’: Jennifer Lovell suffered when her credit record was affected
The company has taken around £500 from Lee’s account over 17 months since he thought he had ceased to be a customer and damaged his credit score in the process.
Lee says: ‘The company has destroyed my credit rating, which I had been working to improve so that I could apply for a mortgage and make something of my life.
This multi-national company seems to think it can just take my money as it pleases.’
Michael Owen, 74, moved away from Vodafone but continued to receive outstanding invoices even though he had paid a ‘final bill’. He was left in ‘stalemate’ with the company.
Jennifer Lovell, who is expecting her first child, has spent the past year complaining to Vodafone about a mobile contract added to her existing account which she made clear she did not want when the deal was offered.
Since then her own mobile phone connection has been cut off and demands for unpaid bills have been referred to a debt collection agency.
Jennifer, 27, from Teignmouth, Devon, says: ‘I have endured huge amounts of stress, worry and sleepless nights. I have had panic attacks when seeing the adverse impact on my credit record. I feel bullied by Vodafone – my complaint has never been taken seriously.’
On Friday, Vodafone said recent investment in customer service had resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in the level of complaints it now receives.
It added: ‘We accept we were not as effective as we should have been in handling and resolving customers’ issues fairly, consistently and in a timely manner.
This has been an unhappy episode for all of us at Vodafone: we know we let our customers down. We are determined to put everything right.’
Pay-as-you-go customers who lost money have been refunded an average £14. Also the company has donated £100,000 to UK charities.
BOSSES WHO SHOULD HANG THEIR HEADS IN SHAME
In May 2015, Jeroen Hoencamp, former chief executive of Vodafone UK, said: ‘The next 12 months are all about improving customer experience and strengthening our network.’
He promised to focus on customer experience ‘more than ever before’ on behalf of its 20 million UK customers.
After hiring more customer service agents, improving their training and investing in the company’s infrastructure, Hoencamp added: ‘This £2 billion investment in our network and customer services over 2014 and 2015 is starting to deliver a step change in customer experience, which we hope our customers are starting to feel.’
The Mail on Sunday has asked many customers how they feel about their experience of Vodafone’s complaints handling in the past year.
Asking questions: The Mail on Sunday has asked many customers how they feel about their experience of Vodafone’s complaints handling in the past year
Richard Holzel sums it up when he says: ‘I would like never to hear the word Vodafone again as my whole experience has been so stressful.’
The 29-year-old MOT inspector and technician says he was ‘continually fobbed off’ when he tried to complain about mistaken charges and a damaged credit rating.
He adds: ‘Its customer service is non-existent. You just get passed from one unhelpful person to another.’
‘Fobbed off’: Customer Richard Holzel
Widowed David Woollcott, 73, is a retired human resources director. He had cause to complain when his phone was blocked from making overseas calls, despite having bought a special roaming package before going abroad.
Despite complaining on his return, the same thing happened on his next trip. Letters to Vodafone went unanswered.
He says: ‘In my business career, I have worked for US and Canadian telecoms companies and a range of UK companies, all of which provided excellent customer service.
‘In my experience any manager responsible for the level of service provided by Vodafone would have been subject to disciplinary action.’
Since Hoencamp quit Britain to lead the company in the Netherlands, he has been replaced by Nick Jeffery, who became UK boss in September. Jeffery has much work to do.
Not that Vodafone’s executives have felt any fallout from the customer service debacle.
Vittorio Colao, chief executive, enjoys remuneration of £5.3million. Colao’s statement after revealing the company’s annual results earlier this year said nothing of the service and complaints handling disaster at its UK division.
He said: ‘Looking forward, we will continue to invest in our customer excellence programmes in both mobile and converged services. I am confident we will sustain our positive momentum in the coming year.’
The customers we have heard from don’t share the same confidence.
Michael Owen adds: ‘I have been with Vodafone for 20-plus years and the bigger it has become the worse the service.
‘The fine is big. If it had invested that sum in sorting out things in the first place Vodafone would not have ended up with so many disgruntled customers. It’s not rocket science. Until The Mail on Sunday intervened Vodafone was the bane of my life.’